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Wimbledon 2016: Berdych vs Murray

We’re reminded that men’s tennis has increasingly become a tall man’s game when 6’3 Andy Murray is little guy in this semi-final match-up. We are also reminded of the average age-increase inside the top 10 when at 29 he also marks the younger of the two men (albeit by a single year to Berdych’s 30). However despite the 6’4, 192.5 lb average of the two competitors, this will not be a slugging match. But before we get to the tactics, let’s take a look at how each man made it this far.

Berdych’s Road To The Semis

Tomas Berdych entered the tournament ranked #9, something of a let-down after a career high of #4 last Summer. Despite that he has played his way quietly throughout the tournament, moving through a tricky draw with steady momentum. Berdych’s first round was scratchy – he struggled to put away Ivan Dogig in four sets (including two tie-breakers). He stepped it up in the following rounds, beginning with a straight-sets dispatch of Benjamin Becker. Next up was current golden-boy Alexander Zverev, who was fresh off taking down Federer on grass at Halle and had taken down Mathieu and Youzhny in his first two matches at Wimbledon).

After taking Zverev down, Berdych outlasted big-serving countryman Jiri Vesely in five sets. Concerns about his recovery were unwarranted, as he cleaned up Lucas Pouille in straight sets to make his way into the match with Murray.

Murray’s Path

Andy was eased into the draw with an enviable start this year. His first three opponents (Broady, Lu and Millman) were ranked 235th, 76th and 67th respectively. It’s a far cry from Wawrinka’s second round match with del Potro, or Monfil’s opening against Chardy in the first round. However to Murray’s credit he dispatched all three in straight sets with workman-like efficiency.

A much-anticipated showdown with Nick Kyrgios was somewhat anti-climatic. What started out as a hotly contested match opened up quickly.  Murray’s deft and surprisingly frequent use of the drop-shot seemed to contribute to Kyrgios’s visibly mounting frustration. After seeing him off in straights, Murray then outlasted Tsonga despite giving up a two-sets-to-love lead.

The History

Murray and Berdych have played 14 times in the past, and it has been a surprisingly even contest by and large. Murray has taken 8 of the meetings to Berdych’s 6. However when we delve a little deeper things are perhaps not so even after all. Murray has won their last 4 matches, and has dropped only 1 out of the last 10 sets they have played. Indeed we have to go back to 2013 to find Berdych’s last win over Murray, and 2010 to find his last win over Murray at a slam (the 2010 French Open).

While recent history points all in Murray’s favor, the two have never faced off on grass. Additionally all of their matches on indoor hard have been hotly contested. With tomorrow’s forecast currently calling for a 40% chance of rain, there is a good chance this will become an indoor grass court match which improves Berdych’s chances.

The Matchup

Berdych has power off both sides

Berdych has power off both sides

Berdych is a pure power player. His is not a game built on touch or finesse, and his point construction shows little in the way of imagination. His serve is fast if not particularly heavy (in comparison to Roanic for example it is much less effective). His forehand is bigger than his backhand but he pounds the ball off both wings. His volleys are reasonably competent, and at Wimbledon he typically comes in around 8 times per set. Berdych’s forays forward are usually after punishing a short ball – he isn’t actively trying to manufacture net opportunities.

Murray needs little introduction. Primarily a counter-puncher, Murray has added more actual punch to his game in recent years. He is genuinely good in almost every aspect of the game, and his creativity with angles is worth noting. What does need discussing is Murray’s serve. Ever the weak spot in his arsenal given his height and obvious strength, Murray’s second serve in particular is a solid 10 mph below where it should be. This is the area where Berdych can and must take advantage.

Murray relies mostly on counterpunching

Murray relies mostly on counter-punching

So how will all of this play out?

Let’s begin with the serve. Berdych has a very balanced approach, hitting slightly more wide serves on the deuce court but otherwise evenly split between the two corners of the box. Berdych typically favors the body second serve against right-handers, with some to the backhand also. Meanwhile Murray favors the serve up the middle in both boxes – likely to boost his slightly anemic first serve %. He goes to the backhand almost exclusively on the second.

Off the ground Berdych has the greater firepower, but Murray has by far the better defense. Common wisdom here would be for Murray to absorb Berdych’s power, extend rallies and wait for the mistakes. However as we saw with Federer vs Cilic yesterday, this also means giving up control. Berdych has the ability to take the match out of his opponent’s hands, and playing too defensively against him is tantamount to gambling with your result.

Murray should look to keep Berdych on the move – the big man has never been graceful on the run – and continue to use the drop-shot to lure Berdych into awkward transitional positions. Meanwhile Berdych should be looking to keep this as a traditional slugging match. Power tennis through the court, using the serve and punishing groundstrokes to keep Murray scrambling.

The true key to the match however will be Berdych’s second serve return. He must be willing to step up and attack Murray’s second delivery. If he can apply pressure there, Murray has been known to throw in some double faults on big points. But more important than earning some free doubles from Murray is Berdych getting ahead in points and staying there. He cannot afford to stay neutral with Murray, and he especially cannot afford to get behind in points. One of the things Murray does well is transition – move from behind to neutral to ahead in points. If Berdych doesn’t take clear control then he is going to struggle and most likely lose.

Summary

On paper this is Murray’s match to lose – he has the clear advantage in recent head-to-head, has a better head on his shoulders and is just generally ahead in the matchup between the two. However Berdych is and always has been a dangerous player. His firepower is formidable, and he has the ability to turn players into spectators in their own matches. If Berdych comes out shooting and doesn’t let up then he has a chance to win.

However Murray’s return, defense and transition are just too good. He’s excellent at throwing players off rhythm with drop shots and slices, and I can’t see Berdych sustaining his game at a high enough level long enough to take this one.

Prediction: Murray in three close sets, but a 30% chance Berdych nabs a set along the way.

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